What’s the Difference Between Meditation and Mindfulness?

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This post is a few years old. My new post would be: Don’t worry about the definitions. Have some direct experience. The end.

And then I would send you here: Guided Meditation Videos on Nondual Awareness by Michael Taft. And I would ask you to watch the videos I recommend in this post.


Ever wonder what the difference is between mindfulness and meditation? Let’s start with the word that Wikipedia can’t even pick one modern definition for: meditation. Though the word meditation does take on different meanings in different contexts (religious vs secular vs spiritual) and I appreciate that, the Oxford Living Dictionary offers a straightforward and pretty encompassing definition that will do just fine… at least to start.

“Focus one’s mind for a period of time, in silence or with the aid of chanting, for religious or spiritual purposes or as a method of relaxation.”

First, I would want to see this definition include the superlong, insanely mindblowing list of health benefits of meditation.

Secondly, though “focus” isn’t a terrible word to use — as many types of meditation include the act (effort) of focusing attention — meditation can be very effortless. In other words, meditation can involve neither effort, nor focus, nor directing of attention. There’s a scene in the movie The Doors, where Val Kilmer yells “How many of you really know you’re alive?” Okay, I should say that he jumps on the roof of the car and yells this out to a crowd. I mention this because (A) hopefully you know you are alive and (B) it helps to clarify what this effortless type of meditation is. Under the “whirlings of the mindstuff” — the sometime shitstorm of thoughts, emotions, sensations, perceptions and more, we have this awareness. We are aware of our existence and that’s pretty cool! Instead of saying “focusing” we can say “noticing.”

But as you will see, so many practices include the word “focus” so it is ok to use it. (Who am I to say otherwise?) As an update to this post, I would recommend checking out this map that Michael Taft created. There are 4 levels that he describes. The first is conceptual “I am looking at a flame” or “I am breathing in. I am breathing out.” The fourth is pure awareness. Effortless. For me, his teachings and views alone have clarified why there is so much confusion over what meditation is.

Basically all who lead and practice meditation agree that we are not trying to “shut up” out inner narrator, stop the horns from honking outside, or worry about that tingle we just felt on our toe… We are noticing from this place of awareness. Thoughts, honks, etc are coming into our awareness. We are not forcing things to arise (like thoughts), not being worried we are doing it wrong if a thought occurs. We just don’t want to grab onto the thought train and go for a ride… That tangles us back up in the whirlings of the mindstuff. In meditation, we get to witness whatever is whirling. We don’t want to stop the whirling. Stopping takes effort. Let it pass.

There are many different types of meditation and again, there are words that maybe aren’t the best fit for what the experience of meditating can be. Like “focus,” the word “attention” is often used in meditation practices, and it’s another act that takes effort. If you are doing a focused attention (FA) meditation, then this word is appropriate. But if you are trying out a level 4 meditation, then the softer language of “allowing” or “bring your awareness to” would be more appropriate.

In focused attention meditation (FA) meditation, you focus your attention on something, like a candle flame. You are monitoring your concentration, or focus on that flame. If your mind wanders, you re-focus… back on the flame. You can also choose to focus on a mantra, or an affirmation.

In open monitoring meditation (OM), you tap into the awareness that is below your level of thinking. So there’s a voice in your head blabbering during your waking hours (aka your thinking mind), but under that is this awesome awareness (the part of you that is aware that this voice is blabbering in your head), and by dropping into that awareness (it’s always there, we just have to remember to contact it), you can notice what is going on… including all that thinking… and notice how those thoughts quiet down, come and go, etc.  The more you practice this, the less your mind wanders into thinking about a grocery list or whatever… The caveat to this (or just simply something to note) is that you may be constructing a “Observer” in your mind. That is, you may be exerting effort to conjure up an “Observer” who is observing the thinking (and feeling and perceiving) mind. It’s kinda like how when you have a conversation with yourself in your head. You can construct a whole cast of characters, including a witness.

In open presence (OP) meditation, there’s a suspension of the representational models of the self and objects in the world. Perceptual phenomena arise and vanish within awareness like “patterns drawn on water.” You can read more about OP, OM, and FA meditations here.

This open presence — this pure presence — is not solely contacted in OP meditations. For example, in FA meditations they talk about how the thinking mind can eventually achieve quiet: the monitoring is “left behind” and a state of effortless presence is achieved. Essence is another great word for this, and I highly recommend listening to Peter Russell speak about “What am I?” and this essence. He also recommends micro-meditations — connecting to this essence throughout the day. Michael Taft would likely describe this as vast spacious awareness devoid of content.. or just awareness itself.

All traditional techniques of meditation recognize that the object of focus, and even the process of monitoring, is just a means to train the mind, so that effortless inner silence and deeper states of consciousness can be discovered. Eventually both the object of focus and the process itself is left behind, and there is only left the true self of the practitioner, as “pure presence.” – Giovanni, Live and Dare

The quote above comes from the article An Overview of 23 Meditation Techniques. You can pick out a technique that seems like it would be a good fit for you. And if you don’t like it, guess what? There are 22 others to choose from. Or Google… there’s always Google. Here’s a short one to start off with:

Though I do want to say that it’s easy to remember that you have awareness — and making contact with this awareness is not hard. It’s easy. It’s remembering that it is there. It always is. Always.

And yeah, it would be cool to have all the whirlings of the mindstuff do their thing and “cease” (of their own accord) and experience awareness with no content of the mindstuff popping on up into it — but that is not what needs to be thought of as “winning meditation.”

Ok, so that was the look at defining meditation. I hope you liked it. Tell me how to improve it.

Mindful is a word that is easier to define. It’s the opposite of mindless.  Jon Kabt-Zinn,PhD, mindfulness expert, describes being mindful as:

“Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

It’s all about being fully present. You can practice mindful eating, mindful sitting in a jacuzzi, mindful skipping across a diagonal crosswalk, mindful just-about-anything. There is an old Zen proverb: “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” Be fully present in what you are doing in the moment.

Jon Kabt-Zinn also said “Awareness doesn’t get depressed; Awareness doesn’t get angry; Awareness doesn’t get anxious.” Mindfulness is about awareness below the level of thinking and disidentification with the thinking mind… so when you are mindful, your observing mind is witnessing everything in the moment (you are fully present), including observing your thinking mind… without judgement. The common metaphor is that your awareness (“observing mind”) is the sky and your thoughts and emotions are the clouds. (Note the use of quotes on “observing mind” because we can never find this in the body. That is to say, that we can’t find within our material, physical, conglomeration of chemicals, BODY, this immaterial essence that makes us aware of our existence. We are not going down the rabbit hole of consciousness today because face it — this post is long enough!)

And adding on to my list of mindful sitting in a jacuzzi, and mindful skipping, and all the mindful things, we also have mindful meditation. You probably noticed that the above description of being mindful sounds an awful lot like focused attention meditation. Good job! Mindful meditation approaches can be open monitoring,  or a mix of open monitoring and focused attention, for example, check out a bit more about integrative body-mind training (IMBT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) here… or, for today, we can go with “mindfulness meditation” as defined by mindful.org:

Mindfulness meditation practice couldn’t be simpler: take a good seat, pay attention to the breath, and when your attention wanders, return.

..or as defined (more satisfactorily, I dare say) by Michael Taft in his book The Mindful Geek:

Mindfulness meditation is a psychological technique that involves paying
attention to your present-moment sensory experience in a nonjudgmental manner, and which makes the unconscious conscious for the purpose of improving your life.

If you think it all sounds a lot the same, you may be asking: How is mindfulness actually different from meditation? It’s because mindfulness practice comes in different flavors: formal mindfulness, informal mindfulness, and a sprinkling of non-meditation-based exercises, like hop scotch (all according to Steven F. Hick, though he wrote neither of “sprinkling” nor of “hop scotch”).

Formal mindfulness practices include sitting meditation, body scan meditation, walking meditation, and mindful movement. These involve intense introspection, sustaining attention on body, breath, sensations, or whatever arises in each moment (choiceless awareness). Three of those four examples of formal mindfulness, were in fact, meditation (or formal meditation, if you prefer).

Informal mindfulness is the application of mindful attention in everyday life, in everyday actions. For example, you may try to be more mindful when listening, or to be more mindful when eating. (My kids learned early on not to hand me food to hold… because I would eat it. Then they would come back and say “Where’s my cracker?” and I would say “What cracker?” completely oblivious to my mindless eating.)

If you find that informal mindfulness is not your jam yet, you don’t have to fret. Meditation can still have a calming effect – check out this study by Jason Moser and Andy Henion. Moser said:

“If you’re a naturally mindful person, and you’re walking around very aware of things, you’re good to go. You shed your emotions quickly. If you’re not naturally mindful, then meditating can make you look like a person who walks around with a lot of mindfulness. But for people who are not naturally mindful and have never meditated, forcing oneself to be mindful ‘in the moment’ doesn’t work. You’d be better off meditating for 20 minutes.”


The short if it (and yes, an oversimplification) is that “meditation” is generally more of a practice and “mindfulness” is generally more of a state of mind, a way of paying attention.

As a practice, meditation can be broken into 3 categories:

  • Attentional (FA, OM)
    You are focusing your attention on something.
  • Constructive (e.g. loving kindness)
    You are constructing kind thoughts, compassion, etc.
  • Deconstructive (OP, deconstructing yourself)
    Letting go of all constructs; phenomena arise and vanish within awareness; contacting pure presence.

In practicing meditation, the state you might want to achieve first (as a beginner) may be mindful one… but you will likely go through some mindlessness during the journey. To find that stillness, your observing mind will watch your thinking mind (OM). In the beginning it may be witnessing, non-judgmentally (we hope), a “monkey mind” (a thinking mind that is jumping from one thought train to another). Focused attention meditation is also generally recommended as the first kind of meditation to try. Instead of having a monkey mind, you develop concentration. Focus.

BUT… But, but, but… I does not HAVE to be FA to start. You can actually start at the bottom of the stack… That’s right, you can start with contacting pure presence, a.k.a. vast spacious awareness.

No matter what you try — or don’t try — always remember that thoughts, even monkey ones are not the enemy. If you are doing FA, then just don’t attach to thoughts. If you are doing OM, then you are not attaching to thoughts, or riding thought trains, or feeling bad about having a thought. Even if you are meditating to contact vast spacious awareness, vast spacious awareness knows that thoughts are arising and vanishing within it. Every sensation, etc, is arising and vaninishing. You can experience this type of meditation here.

Pure being (effortless presence, pure presence, choiceless awareness) is achieved when “the object of focus and the processes of monitoring is left behind.” All that there is (which is always there anyway) is awareness — but now you are at the point where nothing (no content, like a thought or emotion) is coming into awareness. It’s mind blowing by definition because all the whirlings of the mindstuff have been “blown” away. It’s tempting to think of this as “winning” meditation, but don’t. 😉 Once you experience this — once you make contact with what Peter Russell calls your essence, and what Michael Taft calls vast spacious awareness, you can start making contact throughout the day.

In being mindful, the state you want to achieve is presence. Formal mindfulness usually means formal meditation, and informal mindfulness means being present in what you are doing and sensing. And then there are non-meditation-based exercises, which I did not get into here. In her book The Stress-Proof Brain, Melanie Greenburg, PhD, writes “Being mindful is more than meditating or focusing on your breath. Rather, it’s a state of mind…” and then goes on to characterize this state of mind as: an observing stance, slowing things down (mind in “watching” mode rather than “acting” mode), focusing on the present moment, replacing fear with curiosity, openness and nonjudgment, an attitude of equanimity, and “being” instead of “doing.”

Here’s a good explanation from the NIH:

“…the term mindfulness has been used in a different meaning as well. It refers not only to a category of meditative practice; it can also refer to a mental state, or even the ultimate enlightenment goal of these practices. As a mental state, mindfulness refers to a state of meta-awareness, in which the practitioner observes emerging feelings and thoughts without judgment (non-judgmentality). The state of mindfulness can actually be the target of both FA and OM exercises.”

It’s interesting to me that people say “Are we having a moment?” It is interesting how rare that is. Is it because generally we have two people with monkey minds, mindlessly (to some degree) interacting? I do think this is why life passes us by so quickly. Do we get so caught up in being mindless that we don’t notice we are here? The things I remember best are the things that forced me to be in the moment, for better or for worse. My personal journey is in part focusing on: the more I’m “here here,” the more life I get to truly live. (We spend 40-45% of our lives in “habit loops.” That is crazy. )

Though, ironically, you can use Google to find great resources on meditation. 

Further Exploration:

Health Benefits of Meditation

Infographic source: LiveAndDare.com